Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change. I doubt I’m alone in that — it’s hard not to think about it. Every day a new headline laments the loss of a recently-extinct species, or tells of another country ravaged by floods, fires, and extreme weather. The internet is overflowing with tips on living greener: upcycle your old milk cartons into planters, turn off the sink while you brush your teeth. The advice comes with advertisements for “sustainable” clothing brands, “waste-free” hand soap, and “biodegradable” Tupperware.
As much as I wish planting a flower in my plastic milk carton and buying plant-based garbage bags would help reverse global warming, I know it won’t. It feels futile.
Great, sounds hopeless. What does that have to do with writing?
We all know that writers have taken on the challenges of their times for many generations. And our modern predicament is not the first time writers have been faced with the hopelessness of ecological destruction. The industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries coincided with the rise of Romantic poetry. During the romantic period, poets such as Wordsworth Coleridge, Keats, and Blake turned their attention toward nature and the beauty thereof. These poets reacted to the world around them changing by finding parallels between their inner emotional worlds and the plants, animals, weather, and landscapes threatened by the dawn of industry.
Since then, artists and writers have continued finding ways to address the climate crisis in their works. In the past few decades, we’ve seen such powerful novels as The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy that address the climate crisis through allegory, by exploring the effects of climate change on communities, and by hypothesizing about a climate-apocalyptic future.
That brings us pretty near to the present day. Where is climate fiction and eco-poetry now, and where will it go?
One of my favorite proposals about the future of eco-writing comes from Jonathan Skinner’s essay, “Thoughts on Things: Poetics of the Third Landscape”. Skinner explains that in our current situation, “speaking for” certain members of our natural ecosystems isn’t an effective way to oppose climate change. Rather, he advocates for a practice that allows the demands of our surrounding circumstances dictate the shape and form of the “artifacts” we create (whether those may be poems, novels, artworks, or songs). Artist Robert Smithson coined the term “entropology” to describe this new discipline of engaging with and exposing deteriorating frameworks through art.
As with all things in an industrial world, writing creates waste. Creation necessitates negation, and production necessitates neglect. Skinner says, “An entropology seeks a better balance between production and neglect — in the case of writing, between forcing the right conjunction of sound, image and idea, and somehow letting the words be, in the case of conceptualization, between developing and disintegrating frameworks.”
Since Skinner published this essay in 2010, many poets have risen to the occasion of engaging entropology in their work. A great example is Amanda Monti’s 2021 collection “Mycelial Person” in which the poet learns from an imitates the weeds of New York city in the form of their poems. Words overlap, break through, push against, and into, each other. The shapes of the poems, or the “artifacts” themselves is dictated by the surrounding circumstances, that being the weediness and biodiversity of the city.
As much as I love rambling about poetry, I know more of us are novelists than poets. So how does Skinner’s idea of the future of eco-poetics relate to novel writing?
The framework of a novel is arguably more rigid than that of a poem — a poem can be any which shape, any length, grammatically incorrect, adhering to or unsubscribing from structural conventions, and will still be accepted as a poem. On the other hand, novels reliably consist of sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Maybe the aspect of the novel framework that is undergoing disintegration is not the physical shape or form, but rather, the content that makes up a novel, such as character, conflict, and setting.
There have always been novels about nature, or in which the characters are surrounded or backdropped by nature. But what about novels where the characters aren’t just in nature, but are nature?
One fascinating example is Richard Powers’ 2018 novel The Overstory in which nine characters are connected by the trees in their lives. The connections between the characters are dictated by surrounding circumstances, shaped by the trees. The characters in the story spread and connect like the root systems of trees in a forest, pieces of their passions blowing away and propagating like seeds dispersing.
Another example is the disintegrating framework of setting in Rivers Solomon’s 2021 novel Sorrowland. In Sorrowland, the setting not only poses challenges to the characters, but actively shapes, changes, breaks down, and takes over the characters. The main character, Vern, is slowly taken over by a colony of fungus in a literal sense, but her home in the woods also succeeds in breaking down and reconstituting her perceived framework surrounding her disability, race, sexuality, and gender. As the fungus takes over her body, Vern becomes physically invincible -- her blindness and albinism are no obstacle for a network of mycelium spreading all across the country.
One last example is Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet which explores the disintegrating framework of time through the hyper-relevancy and break-neck speed of her response to news events in the novels. These four novels published in 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020 each respond to news events and crises from the exact years they were published. Autumn, published in 2016, immediately responds to the 2016 European Union membership referendum and Brexit. Winter, Spring, and Summer respond to the news of their years with similarly startling immediacy, at speeds rarely seen before in published novels. Through her use of seasons as settings for the novels, Smith emphasizes the connection between accelerated climate change and an accelerated news cycle.
Reading is one of my favorite ways to learn and find new perspectives. My favorite thing about the idea of a future full of creative, framework-breaking eco-fiction is that it will change the way we think of and engage with nature. We may not be in charge of policies surrounding climate change, but we are in charge of the way we think. The more we write for, with and in nature, the closer we can come to understanding our place within our ecosystem, and the necessity of preserving it for the future.
Photo: Robert Smithson “Yucatan Mirror Displacements, 1-9,” 1969